The following blog post was written by Shaelagh Cull, Summer 2015 Public Programs Assistant .
“My pen cannot express the anguish and pain suffered by some women…”:
For many women, each month until menopause will bring with it a new menstrual cycle. Anywhere between twenty to ninety percent of women will experience painful cramping, medically known as dysmenorrhea. At its most basic level, menstrual cramps are the body’s way of getting rid of the nutrient-rich lining of the uterus. The body replaces this lining monthly in preparation for a potential pregnancy. The pain associated with this process can become so severe that it can lead to dizziness or fainting, and is associated with other uncomfortable symptoms such as headache, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or backache. While in the throes of menstrual pain, women today often turn to over-the-counter painkillers, such as Advil, Midol or Tylenol to treat the discomfort, or to heat, in the form of electric heating-pads or hot water bottles to ease abdominal cramping. Even with such easily accessible and effective treatments, menstrual cramps can still take their toll – research has shown that dysmenorrhea is responsible for the majority of short-term school absences among adolescent girls, and some studies have suggested similar findings for adults in the workplace, although this has been difficult to properly test. If menstrual cramps continue to significantly affect women today, even with accessibility to modern painkillers, how did the women of the past attempt to treat the pain associated with their monthly menstrual cycles?
Home Remedies and Herbal Fixes
In Western cultures, treatment for menstrual cramping was almost exclusively carried out in the home
utilizing common herbs. Throughout history, a whole host of plants were used to treat dysmenorrhea. In the Middle Ages, lemon balm was cited as a type of cure-all and was often given to women suffering from pain. Catnip and caraway were also recorded as effective cures for cramps. In the seventeenth-century motherwort was used interchangeably as a uterine stimulant to quicken the birthing process or as a uterine relaxant to ease menstrual pain. Ginger tea has served as a popular remedy
throughout history, and is sometimes used today by women attempting to relieve menstrual cramps without the use of over-the-counter painkillers. Similarly, peppermint tea and infusions of yarrow have been used to provide assistance for particularly bad cramps.
Of course, copious amounts of alcohol could always be counted on to dull pain.
Victorian Pills and Potions
Before reliable patent medicines became readily available, Victorian women were experimenting with various treatments for menstrual pain. In one example, local to Kingston, Ontario, Isabella Clarke Macdonald, wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, was prescribed Styptic Balsam for her menstrual cramps, which (incredibly) included ingredients such as sulphuric acid and turpentine. Opium was also widely used in Kingston and elsewhere to dull a myriad of painful conditions. A more radical treatment, offered by an American physician in 1872, urged the surgical removal of the ovaries to stop menstrual pain.
While these treatments seem like drastic measures for dealing with menstrual cramps, for some women, dysmenorrhea can be extremely painful and has been known to cause serious episodes of fainting, vomiting or, more rarely, convulsions. As a result, the condition – when brought to the attention of physicians – was often approached aggressively.
The search for better menstrual treatments continued, and in North America two herbs emerged as key uterine relaxants: black haw and black cohosh. Originally from the southern United States, black haw gained popularity among women following a study published in Nature, a notable British scientific journal, which reported that the herb contained scopoletin, a chemical compound known to provide menstrual relief. This led to its widespread use throughout North America to relieve “gynecological complaints.”
Around the same time, black cohosh came to the fore as the active ingredient of one of the nineteenth-century’s most popular patent medicines: Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was patented in 1876. It typically contained alcohol and plant ingredients such as liquorish, chamomile, pleurisy root or black cohosh, depending on when it was produced. The compound was formulated to specifically target “woman problems” and helped to relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, menopause and menstrual cramping. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became a best-selling drug in the 19th century, partly due to the perceived effectiveness of black cohosh as its main ingredient, and partly because women trusted a medicine created by women for women.
Frederick Humphrey created another popular patent medicine used throughout the Victorian era. Although he could not personally relate to the pain of menstruation, Humphrey empathized with women who suffered from it. Describing the need for his product he wrote that the “… prostrating effects of one period [of cramping] are hardly recovered from, before another comes on.” His drug, called Humphrey’s Homeopathic No. 31, was advertised as an effective pain reliever. Medications such as Humphrey’s Homeopathic No.31 and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were a step towards increasingly reliable relief during painful menstrual cycles.
Over the centuries, medicine has developed so that by 2015 most women in Canada do not have to stop their daily activities to deal with their monthly period (although a day off here or there might sometimes be required to recover from instances of severe cramping). Remedies for dysmenorrhea have become more effective and accessible to women and issues surrounding menstruation are being more freely discussed. While we have made serious strides in the treatment of menstrual pain, it is important to note that there are many women in the world today without access to basic supplies such as tampons, sanitary pads or painkillers. For these women, the struggle of balancing the pain associated with monthly menstrual cycles and everyday life continues.
To learn more about Victorian medicine and the health of Isabella Macdonald, check out the Museum’s latest exhibition: A Stubborn Illness: The Health of the Macdonald Family. For more information about Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, see a previous blog post on the topic, entitled “Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy.”
Castleman, Michael.The New Healing Herbs: The Essential Guide to More Than 125 of Nature’s Most Potent Herbal Remedies. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2010. Electronic.
Delaney, Janice, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Print.
Egunyu, Dorah. “A bleeding shame: why is menstruation still holding girls back?” the Guardian UK, May 28, 2014, accessed July 24, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/may/28/menstruation-girls-education-uganda-sanitation. Web.
French, Linda. “Dysmenorrhea.” American Family Physician 71(2): 285-291. Accessed July 5, 2015. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/0115/p285.html. Web.
Humphreys, Frederick. “Humphrey’s Homeopathic mentor, or Family adviser in the use of specific homeopathic medicine.” New York: Humphrey’s Specific Homeopathic Medicine Company, 1873. Electronic.
Janos,. Elisabeth, ed. Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea and Other Old-Time Remedies. Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1990. Electronic.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., ed. Women’s History and Ancient History. North Carolina: North Carolina Press, 1991. Electronic.
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WebMD. “Menstrual Cramps.” Accessed July 5, 2015. http://www.webmd.com/menstrual-cramps-topic-overview. Web.
 Frederick Humphreys, “Humphrey’s Homeopathic mentor, or Family adviser in the use of specific homeopathic medicine,” (New York: Humphrey’s Specific Homeopathic Medicine Company, 1873), 220.
 “Menstrual Cramps,” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/menstrual-cramps-topic-overview, accessed July 5, 2015.
 Linda French, “Dysmenorrhea,” American Family Physician 71(2): 285-291. Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton and Emily Toth, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 60.
 Michael Castleman, The New Healing Herbs: The Essential Guide to More Than 125 of Nature’s Most Potent Herbal Remedies, (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2010), 305.
 Ibid., 130, 136, 335.
 Elisabeth Janos, ed., Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea and Other Old-Time Remedies, (Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1990), 129.
 Ibid., 130.
 Patricia Phenix, Private Demons: the tragic personal life of Sir John A Macdonald, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2006), 70.
 David C. Stuart, Dangerous Garden: The Quest for Plants to Change Our Lives, (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2004), 138.
 Humphreys, “Humphrey’s Homeopathic Mentor,” 220.
 Castleman, The New Healing Herbs, 107.
 Stuart, Dangerous Garden, 138-9.
 Ibid., 137.
 Humphrey, Humphrey’s Homeopathic Mentor, 220.
 Ibid., 221.
 Dorah Egunyu, “A bleeding shame: why is menstruation still holding girls back?” the Guardian UK, May 28, 2014, accessed July 24, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/may/28/menstruation-girls-education-uganda-sanitation.